By Megan Stories
What do you like, my girlfriend asks. She pauses before the word like and looks over her shoulder, away from me, so I understand that she is talking about sex.
We are sitting in my girlfriend’s bedroom, in the half-light of drawn blinds. Posters and magazine cutouts litter the walls. A fuzzy gray UFO that she tells me comes from the X-Files. A blown-up Ani Difranco album cover, making steady eye contact from a face nearly as wide as the bedroom door. Natalie Portman, in her sleek Star Wars regalia, peering down from on high, just below the crease where the wall meets the ceiling.
It has been four months since our first date, two months and three weeks since we first lay naked in bed together and I willed myself to follow her lead. For the first three years of high school, I longed to fall in love. First I wondered why I never had crushes on boys; later, after I came out, I resigned myself to being alone. Having found a girlfriend in my small town still astonishes me. And yet sometimes I worry I don’t love her enough.
My girlfriend looks back at me, and I shift under her gaze. A frizzy wisp of hair, still growing out from when I chopped it off a year ago, frees itself from my bandanna, and I push it away, my cheek itching. Every time she tries to talk about sex, my lips feel glued together. Isn’t it enough that I do it?
Maybe I say I don’t know, or maybe I tell her I like every part equally. I know she wants me to be specific, but when I think about sex, I tend to avoid details. I remember the idea of it—the closest you can get to someone, my girlfriend once said—but not the moment-to-moment.
Not the way that sometimes, with her clothes off, my girlfriend looks like a stranger. Face washed out against an unbroken stream of skin, pale chest with fish-pink nipples, blond hair so white it’s almost translucent. When she opens my legs and ducks her head, her face disappears behind a curtain of fine, ghostly hair, and I feel like the last survivor of an ice age—numb and desperately alone.
There’s no headboard on my girlfriend’s bed, so she leans against the wall. She’s starting to chew on her lip, square front teeth overhanging the side of her mouth. Some queer youth guidebook said you’re supposed to talk about what you like—what you like—but I still can’t think of anything to name.
The last time we did it, we rubbed against each other’s thighs. Feeling built and then curdled in a heartbeat, pleasure turned to rust in my mouth. That’s been happening lately, as if my brain is lined with barrels of whatever chemical makes you feel suddenly wretched, and one springs a leak that geysers out into my abdomen, my crotch, my chest. How can you just stop like that, she asked, after I jerked my body away. I don’t know, I told her. I just can.
What I don’t tell her—what I don’t yet know myself—is that the questions are wrong. She asks what I like, not whether I like sex at all. She asks what I want to try next, when what I want most is to throw open the blinds, to keep our clothes on, to turn back time to before she started pushing me for a yes.
Later I will come to understand that I am asexual, though it will take me years to see it. I will assume at first that sex with my girlfriend felt wrong because she pressured me into it, which is true, and because I wasn’t ready for it, which is also true. But the simplest explanation—that sex felt wrong because I simply didn’t want sex—will elude me.
If this were a different kind of story—if this were a lesbian coming-out story and the partner who pressured me for sex was a boy—the problem might be more instantly recognizable: I was gay all along and didn’t know it. But I was gay all along, in the sense of loving girls, and I did know it. What I didn’t know was you could love girls and not want to fuck anyone.
Another bedroom, five years later. My partner’s first New York apartment is minimally furnished: a futon mattress on the floor with hand-me-down sheets; a clock radio; a bedside lamp, long since turned off. It’s been only a week or two since I helped them move in, just around a month we’ve been dating at all.
What do you want, my partner whispers into my ear. The weight of their slight body presses my hips into the mattress. My cheek lies flat against a thin pillow; over the futon’s edge, a streetlight’s glow illuminates a dizzying parquet. The numbers on the clock glow green beside me. 1:26. Past our bedtimes. They’ve been teasing fingers up my thighs, studding my neck with kisses. I am eager and pliable and, now, frozen.
The problem with sex is I’m bad at it. It’s not my fault—my high school girlfriend hurt me; later, my urge to fix what she’d done to me scared lovers away. There were a few months of thrilling one-off encounters, then two empty years, and now here I am, too old to be this ignorant, to have so little to offer.
What do I want? I want to shake the curse of my inexperience. I want to master sex, to tame it. I want to know what I want, but how can I know until I’ve done it, and how can I do it until I know?
A Tumblr post I will read over a decade later asks which kind of asexual you are: the kind who thought everyone was exaggerating their interest in sex, or the kind who thought that you and you alone were broken. When my partner asks what I want in that sparse Brooklyn bedroom, I am certain that I’m broken. My silence in the face of their question mortifies me, but I can’t make myself speak.
My partner doesn’t understand what’s wrong with me and sex, not entirely. I told them once I was on a revenge quest, that sex hurt me as a teenager and I want to hurt it right back. Two weeks ago, in my Alphabet City loft bed, they wiped their fingers on my sheets and looked up from between my thighs, grinning impishly under their mop of curly hair. How’s that revenge quest coming? It was true: they’d fingered me and I’d come away unhurt, but somehow I didn’t feel any closer to whatever I was looking for.
Time elongates. My partner sighs into the darkness. The clock face reads 1:37, and as soon as I’ve glanced at it, I squinch my eyes shut into the pillow. This moment is everything that is wrong with me: I finally have a chance to do sex right and I’m ruining it.
The warm, gentle weight of my partner’s hand presses against my shoulder. Hey, they whisper. We can just go to sleep. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to keep being broken. I drag from my throat a phrase that feels plausible, if not true: Iwantyoutofuckme.
What I want, though I won’t realize it for years, is a kind of asexual tautology. I want sex to feel the way I’m told it’s supposed to feel, and I want that feeling to come easily, effortlessly, the way I’m told it ought to. In this longing, I am insatiable—not like a sponge, but like a sieve. Everything I try—the afternoon in my loft bed; tonight, my partner reaching into my underwear, my voice catching as they touch me—fails to fill me up. I won’t hate myself in the morning, but I won’t feel any closer to what I’m seeking either.
It is one of the last times my partner and I sleep together.
What are you into? my new acquaintance asks. She leans in close to let me hear her over the party din. Electro beats thump through the black-walled Brooklyn basement. A cane whooshes through the air, and a sharp yelp follows. Someone’s wailing orgasm crescendoes.
I hear this question at every kink event. What are you into, as we mill around after a class on flogging, waiting our turn to inspect a display of luxurious leather flails. What do you like, from a butch who swaggers up to me in the corner by the party’s entrance. I am supposed to answer with a laundry list of acts: caning, bondage, needles, knives. But all I know is that coming here is essential to a quest I still can’t articulate.
Looking back, I will see my early days in New York’s queer BDSM scene as its own asexual journey. I am drawn to this community where the rules of engagement are clear, where no single act is considered central to intimacy. It seems more possible to navigate this world where I might choose a partner out of a shared desire to experience something, not because I am supposed to feel attracted to them. But when I’m asked what brings me to BDSM in these early days, I always disappoint.
I’m not sure yet, I answer the first people who ask me, but they quickly lose interest. Tonight, I tell my new acquaintance, I just love the way this community handles consent. She leans away from me, her nose upturned. If you think about it that way, she says, you’re missing out on all the fun parts.
I am missing the fun parts, and again, my inexperience is to blame. Sometimes, before parties, I lose myself in fantasies—walking a menacing circle around a wide-eyed stranger; someone I met at a friend’s birthday party kneeling before me, hissing as I pull their hair. I imagine these moments, and a dozen subway stops rush by before I come back to myself, breathless and hopeful.
But as soon as I enter the playspace, my confidence falls away. I don’t know how to translate the feeling of the fantasies into words that make sense here. I don’t know if I want to cane or tie or pierce or draw a blade along flesh, and if I did want to, I wouldn’t know where to start. I am ashamed of my newness, ashamed of wanting to top despite my newness, ashamed that I can’t answer a simple question.
A stranger with a mullet and a sharp-toothed grin rests a thick-soled boot on the bench where I am failing to make conversation. Does anyone want to make out? Her eyes scan the bench and stop on mine.
I go with her immediately, so relieved there’s something to say yes to that I don’t stop to consider whether I like making out—doesn’t everyone?
There’s a mattress on a platform at the back of the playspace, lined with thick vinyl, and the grinning stranger takes me there, leaves the privacy curtain half-open. She doesn’t mind that I don’t know what I want. She offers to spank me and I agree. She runs her hands up my sides and I sway into the touch, grateful to be feeling something, anything. Her breath stinks of whiskey, and I tell myself I like the way her hands grab at me. I don’t know what to do with my own hands, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
She lies me on my front and slaps me through my pinstripe pants. The fabric dulls the impact, and I don’t know if I’d rather the sensation were sharper. Her free hand spiders up my thigh, tracing my pant-seams, and some traitorous part of me wants those fingers closer, higher, though my gut twists at the thought. I don’t quite trust the grinning stranger. I’m not sure that what I’m looking for can be found here.
There is a strange dissonance to unwanted sexual touch. Her fingers wriggle up into my crotch, and my hips arch up into the crude pleasure of it. At the same time, an alarm bell starts clanging in my gut, muted but growing stronger. My consciousness peels away, narrating the experience instead of feeling it: there’s her hand; the vinyl is sticking to my cheek; this feels good; there’s no reason to leave. I’ve felt this dissonance so many times, and yet each time I fail to imagine it as a possibility. Each time, I’m certain that this time, the touch will be wanted.
It’s not the spanking I mind—the spanking is just noise. It’s the gulf between my crotch and my gut. Pleasure keeps me complacent, keeps my face disappearing into the mattress’s comfortless vinyl. The alarm inside me grows louder, but sensation drowns it out. Those brain barrels I once imagined spilling chemical wretchedness are poised once again to burst open. I hate myself for not wanting this after all but I don’t, I don’t.
She lifts her hand, readying another slap, and I roll gracelessly off the bed, legs shaking. I’m sorry, I tell the grinning stranger. I have to go.
My new girlfriend’s house is brightly lit, a second-floor walkup with big windows that overlook an alley. Her roommate painted the walls a cheery aqua, and riot grrl posters and Renaissance nudes hang framed and level in her bedroom.
My new girlfriend has a Nintendo Wii, and we spend giggly afternoons battling each other at virtual tennis. She buys a fondue pot, and we burn our mouths on boozy, molten cheese.
When it comes to sex, I tell my new girlfriend I need to take things slowly, and she doesn’t push. We kiss for the first time outside the 1st Avenue L train station, and my body twinges afterwards, less settled than I’d like. That melancholy ache grows when we finger each other for the first time, but after a while, I stop noticing. She massages my back, and I feel pampered and deserving. I pinch her nipples, and I enjoy her breathless pleasure at the pain. I wanted to have sex without it hurting me, and here I am, mostly unscathed. And yet the more we do it, the more I find myself unsatisfied.
My internal goalposts keep moving. First, I thought it would be enough to prove I could have sex without it harming me. Later, I thought I just wanted sexual experience, so I wouldn’t have to feel lost or ashamed. But with my new girlfriend, I feel impatient and bewildered. Surely the thing we’re doing now is just a stepping stone to the real thing. Surely somewhere on the horizon is something that will actually feel intimate and transcendent, the way I still, against evidence, expect sex will someday feel for me.
I’m up for anything, my new girlfriend tells me. If you want to try something, just say so. She tells me this in bed, winded from finger-fucking, but she tells me other things too. She thinks toys are underwhelming, and kink is pretentious. Anything I do to her body, she wants to do to mine. And so I once again stay silent when she asks me what I want.
I have said this is an asexual story, but it is also a kink story. The more I consider what I want, the more forgotten desires come back to me. I picture hurting my new girlfriend more, harder, imagine a world where my pinches, twists, and slaps give her the same hazy glow I used to envy on the faces of bottoms at play parties. I picture giving her orders she won’t just turn around and give me—to strip off clothes, to stay still, to make herself vulnerable.
Sometimes, waking from these fantasies, I feel an old self-loathing rise in me. My new girlfriend is up for anything; what is wrong with me that I can’t admit what I desire? And yet I’m certain that her anything can’t quite imagine me asking to top without bottoming, to be dominant without then submitting, to play with power and pain without also playing with sex.
Some people are innately drawn to submission and masochism and take pleasure in a partner who wants to hurt them, to call the erotic shots. I understand without being told that my new girlfriend is not one of those people, that the part of me that wants these things is not welcome here. I understand too that I can’t keep having our stepping stone sex knowing that something more is possible.
In our breakup conversation, I confess that what I want to explore is a partnership where I’m always the top. You’re right, she says. I don’t want that. It’s the last time I see her.
Despite being an institutional conference room, the meeting space is warm and lively. I’ve been going to kink classes again for the past year, and sometimes parties too, though I am more cautious now about what I agree to.
We are discussing the ways fat liberation and sexual liberation intertwine. The instructor is a new friend of mine, a fat activist and community educator who has, for the occasion, shaved their head clean and shined their leather boots. They stand at the butcher paper easel pad with a steady yet gentle posture, greeting friends and strangers alike as we enter.
In the center of the room sits a circle of wide, armless chairs, meant to assure every attendee a comfortable seat. Friends of the instructor have brought decadent home-baked goods to share: buttery, salt-topped cookies with thick chocolate chunks, some sort of gooey bar that bursts citrusy bright on the tongue.
The intention is to ground us in our bodies through comfort, pleasure, and ease, and it works. The workshop begins with an invitation to rest our feet squarely on the ground, and somehow, just before my friend invites us to do this, my feet find their way there unprompted. I may not have words yet for everything I want and don’t, but this is the kind of space where it feels like I could be or not-be anything.
In the Q&A session that follows, a young gay man raises his hand. He doesn’t enjoy penetration, he tells us. How can he tell this to his partner?
My friend has astonishing empathy and insight. Of course sharing a boundary is hard, they say. There is always the risk that our boundary won’t be respected. And in this case in particular, there’s an idea that penetration is central to gay sex; it makes sense that it feels difficult to tell people that this thing that’s supposed to be central is something you don’t desire.
The young gay man nods in recognition; the room holds its collective breath. My friend suggests some phrasings for conveying the boundary, and then they make a final, gentle suggestion. Also, think about what you do want.
It will be another decade still before I use the word asexual to describe myself. But everything the word will give me, I feel in this moment. For the first time, I imagine a world where my high school girlfriend hears my no. I only have to say it once; there’s no pressure, no hands roaming past the limits I’ve set, no repeated asks, no insistence that sex is something everybody must do. I imagine someone giving me this same invitation: think about what you do want.
As a child, I thrilled myself at bedtimes with stories about domination. A sharp-clawed cat hunting down mice. Armies of feral children capturing each other and sending their prisoners through byzantine torture machines. I told myself these stories in secret and never questioned why they compelled me, why sometimes, at the tensest points, I would squeeze even tighter the pillow I kept between my legs to sleep.
Think about what you do want.
If I could have thought long enough, I like to imagine that my mind would have drifted to those old stories, to their proto-erotic thrills. I like to think I would have recognized that those stories pointed to something fundamentally true about me and my desires. I like to imagine something inside me settling into place. And I like to think that forever after, I could hold those childhood bedtime stories like a smooth stone in my palm. Then, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted, no matter what they expected, I could feel the cool, solid weight of my memories and know I had an answer.
Megan Stories has been writing about the intersections of kink, trauma, asexuality, queerness, and generally being sex-weird since the early 2000s--longer if you count those childhood compositions about Rainbow Brite "nibbling" Strawberry Shortcake. She has been published in Electric Literature and The Establishment and appeared as an invited storyteller at Outfluenced: A Night of Queer Storytelling.